'Futurama' finds a new future on Comedy Central
The "Futurama" is now! Or, well, Sunday night at 9. That's when the last of the four "Futurama" direct-to-DVD animated movies makes its TV premiere, on Comedy Central.
Given the finality of that finale when it debuted in February, the future didn't seem so much "now" as it did "no longer." Without spoiling it for TV viewers catching "Futurama: Into the Wild Green Yonder" - which follows "Bender's Big Score" (2007), "The Beast With a Billion Backs" and "Bender's Game" (both 2008), plus the 72 episodes run on Fox from 1999 to 2003 - we can safely say it involves goodbyes, I love yous and a spaceship disappearing into a wormhole.
Yet to slightly misquote the great New York prophet Casey Stengel, "Never make predictions, especially about the 'Futurama.' " Though the show has always lagged behind its sister, "The Simpsons" - that 20-year pop-culture phenomenon also created by cartoonist Matt Groening - "Futurama" found resurrection in June when 20th Century Fox announced that Comedy Central had ordered a new, 26-episode season, set to begin next year.
Like the "42" in Douglas Adams' "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," the meaning of "26" is open to interpretation. "It will be up to 26," specifies executive producer David X. Cohen, who, with Groening, is credited as "developer" of the series. "I can't guarantee it will be 26," he says by phone, en route to the L.A. studio where the cast is recording the second new episode. "But I think there's a pretty good chance it'll be exactly 26. Fox has been a little bit cagey about it, even internally.
"But nobody's too concerned," he adds cheerily. "We're plunging ahead."
In addition to recording these two episodes, "There are six scripts currently in the works, ranging in scale from 'it's a crazy idea that someone's grandmother thought of' to 'it's all on paper.' Without giving away too much, I'll say the first episode is tentatively titled 'Rebirth' - and in a surprisingly literal fashion, as things turn out."
Make room for 'Futurama'
Many series have switched networks shortly after cancellation, and some, such as "Jericho," were granted same-network reprieve after fan campaigns. But virtually none have returned so many years later. Many point to Fox's animated "Family Guy," which returned in 2005 following its 1999-2002 run and great success in Cartoon Network reruns and on DVD, but there were occasional revivals before, such as "Make Room for Daddy" (ABC/CBS 1953-1964), which, after syndication success as "The Danny Thomas Show," reunited the original cast as "Make Room for Granddaddy" (ABC 1970-1971).
This trend may continue, suggests Dr. Jeffrey Weinstock of Central Michigan University, author of several books on pop culture and the editor of "Taking South Park Seriously" (SUNY Press, 2008). "Niche cable channels and Hulu give reruns time to develop a kind of following that network television usually doesn't allow," he says. "Niche audiences build up a momentum, a critical mass of potential viewers, and then you can bring [a show] back."
Simply not 'The Simpsons'
Cult-hit "Futurama" never achieved the critical mass, or the critical success, of "The Simpsons." Both shows satirize contemporary society and celebrity culture with smart humor as well as slapstick. So aside from the vagaries of program schedules and such, why hasn't "Futurama" become anywhere near as big as "The Simpsons"?
"The main reason is 'The Simpsons' has an identifiable family in an identifiable world with everything regular people go through," believes author and longtime animation maven Jerry Beck, founder of CartoonBrew .com. " 'Futurama' has more of a student, single guy / single gal point of view."
Cohen concurs. "Aside from it being in the future with robots and monsters and those visual differences, the characters are young adults, whom you don't see many of on 'The Simpsons.' "
And while it may not affect popularity, it's worth noting the two series espouse very different comedy traditions despite coming from the same creator. "The Simpsons" echoes the strains of American-Irish vaudeville humor - the beer-soaked, sneaking-in-late-while-the-wife's-asleep comedy of Harrigan and Hart, McNulty and Murray, the Four Cohans (which, yes, included George M.) and countless others: knockabout yet sentimental, and ultimately about the bonds of blood family.
"Futurama," conversely, stems from Jewish-American humor, and not just in the obvious archetype of Dr. Zoidberg. From vaudeville to the Catskills to Woody Allen, it's that distinctly rueful humor built to ward away everything from despair to petty annoyance - the "Eh? So whaddya gonna do?" philosophy that helps the "Futurama" characters cope in a mega-corporate world where the little guy is essentially powerless.
Things work out, but often in a compromised sense amid pervasive corruption, tarnished tradition, massive wealth inequity and such celebrityhood that in Sunday's movie, rapper Snoop Dogg is chief justice of the United States.
"I'm Jewish, and I know what you're saying," Beck agrees. "Fry has that [type of humor], Dr. Zoidberg, all the [vocal artist] Billy West characters. I see it. The bottom line is, the producers are tying to make sure the shows are completely different entities."
So in that respect, Groening and company can't have another "Simpsons." But they and the show's fans do have another "Futurama," and what's past is prologue.
Who's who in the worlds of 'The Simpsons' and 'Futurama'
Some physicists say we have doubles of ourselves, blithely living out of phase in an alternate universe. Others say that's simply the stuff of cartoons and science fiction. "The Simpsons" and "Futurama" say, "Why can't it be both?!" Consider:
Mischievous/larcenous bad boy
'The Simpsons': Bart
Responsible female who loves idiot
Cranky, wrinkly, forgetful old guy
Professor Hubert Farnsworth
Evil old billionaire
Recurring alien menaces
Kang and Kodos
Lrrr and Ndnd
"Life in Hell"
Life in space